Children under 5 in the US are missing out on vital nutrition by drinking sugary drinks and passing up fruits and vegetables, a new report from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says.
Researchers surveyed the parents of more than 18,000 kids ages 1 to 5 in 2021, asking them how many times the child ate fruit, the number of vegetables eaten and the number of sugar-sweetened beverages consumed in the preceding week.
The findings were published in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report on Thursday.
The parents reported that almost half of kids did not eat a vegetable every day and about a third did not eat a fruit every day.
More than half of the kids – 57% – drank at least one sugar-sweetened beverage that week.
The researchers found that a 1-year-old is more likely to eat a fruit or vegetable every day and less likely to have a sugary drink than the older kids in that age group.
Findings varied by state, though, according to Heather Hamner, senior author of the study and a senior health scientist at the CDC.
“This is the first time we’ve had state-level estimates on these behaviors,” Hamner said. “It’s a really good time to think about the programs and policies that states have in place and areas where they can continue to work and improve to make the nutrition environment the best it can be for our young children.”
More than half of kids in 40 states plus Washington, DC, had drank a sugar-sweetened beverage in the preceding week, the report found. Mississippi had the highest rate of children drinking at least one sugar-sweetened beverage in the preceding week, at nearly 80%, while Maine reported the lowest rate of sugary drink consumption: 38.6%.
When it came to vegetables, the report also found that over half of kids in 20 states did not eat a vegetable every day during the preceding week.
Parents in Louisiana reported that nearly 3 in 5 children did not eat a daily vegetable. There was a similar finding for fruit, with nearly half of children in Louisiana not eating a fruit each day.
Vermont reported the highest rates of fruit and vegetable consumption among kids ages 1 to 5.
The report notes gaps in vegetable and fruit consumption related to race and household food sufficiency.
Parents of Black children were most likely to report that their kids didn’t eat a daily vegetable or fruit, while parents of White children were least likely.
According to the report, about 70% of parents of Black children reported their child drinking a sugar-sweetened beverage at least once during the preceding week.
“Compared with children living in food-sufficient households, those living in households with marginal or low food sufficiency were less likely to eat either a daily fruit or vegetable and were more likely to consume sugar sweetened beverages during the preceding week,” the report says.
Young children need specific nutrients from a diet rich in fruits and vegetables to support their development.
Children ages 2 or 3 should have at least a cup of fruit and a cup of vegetables every day while kids ages 4 to 8 should have 1.5 cups of each every day, according to nutrition guidelines from the CDC and USDA.
“Limiting or reducing foods and beverages higher in added sugars, including sugar-sweetened beverages, is important because added sugars are associated with increased risk of obesity, dental caries, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease,” the report said.
The key to increasing food and vegetable intake among children under 5 is in the hands of their parents, Hamner said.
“We’ve found that it can take up to 10 times for a child to try a new food before they like it,” she said. “Continuing to try and expose young children to a wide variety of fruits and vegetables is an important piece.”
It can also help to offer varying tastes and textures of foods so children can boost their intake and better understand what they prefer.
Parents shouldn’t feel tied to fresh fruits and vegetables, either. Frozen and canned options are great ways to incorporate nutrition in every meal.
Adding these essential vitamins and laying a strong food foundation for your child has a lasting impact, too.
“One of the things that’s really important is these early dietary behaviors,” Hamner said. “This is really when kids are laying the foundation for some of those dietary behaviors, so starting out strong and making sure that they’re creating these healthy behaviors … that’s going to set them up as they go into adolescence and adulthood.”
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